No woman had ever won gold in three successive Olympics in the same event, but Dawn Fraser of Balmain, Australia was gunning for it.
Fraser’s breakthrough was at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 as she beat her fellow Australians in the 100-meter freestyle, becoming an overnight sensation. Then in Rome, the American swimming team was a rising power, but Fraser stared them down to win the 100 meters. In Tokyo, the Americans were expected to win everything. And they came close. But Fraser, at the age of 27, beat 15-year old Sharon Stouder, and 17-year old Kathy Ellis to assure her status as one of the Olympiad’s greatest heroes.
But heroes often must pass painful trials to complete their journey. 1964 proved to be an emotional roller coaster for Fraser, beginning with a disaster for Fraser only 8 months before the Tokyo Olympics.
In February, Fraser was peaking, setting the world record in the 100 yards, and winning the 220 yard title at the National Championships in Sydney. One evening shortly after those championships, she and her family were enjoying an evening out. She had a car and offered to drive her sister home, accompanied with her mother and her friend, Wendy Walters. Here is how she describes the fatal crash in her autobiography, “Below the Surface“, that ended her mother’s life:
I was driving about 40 miles an hour. I’d been driving for 10 years, and I knew that this was about my limit with my mother on board; she was nervous about speed. We were sweeping around a curve on a highway called General Holmes Drive when I saw what looked like the cabin of a truck dead ahead. At the same moment, Wendy, who was next to me in the front seat, called out, ‘Look out, Dawn.’ I remember pulling the wheel hard to the right, and I think I must have hit the brakes hard. I learned a long time later that the driver of the truck we hit had parked his vehicle while he went fishing nearby in the Cook’s River. But my recollections of the crash are vague: a gigantic close-up of the cabin in our headlights, a high screech of tires on bitumen, and a terrible crash.
Walters had injuries to her face, while Fraser and her brother Ken recovered from injuries after arriving at the hospital unconscious. Fraser’s mother, however, was killed in the accident.
Over my last few days in the hospital, I was trying to sort my life out again, trying to adjust to the idea that my mother wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t believe that it had all happened. And I kept blaming myself, because I had been driving the car. My mother was 68, and I was completely devoted to her; I don’t think I really knew how close we were until the accident, and then it was too late. My family kept trying to talk me out of my depression, telling me that it was foolish to accept the blame.
Fraser had pretty much given up on going to Tokyo. She was depressed, feeling guilty. She was at the wheel. She was responsible. On top of that, she had to wear an uncomfortable steel brace for nine weeks that kept her neck and back immobile, forcing her to turn her whole body just to talk to someone to her side. But recover she did, returning to the water for her recovery in April. She put on a swimsuit, not intending to do anything but dip her feet. She slipped into the water, and began a gentle swim. “For maybe 20 minutes, there was just the two of us – the water and I. And it felt good.”
As Fraser continued in her recovery, she was hearing about the fast times being set by up-and-coming American, Sharon Stouder. Once her competitive instincts were aroused, Fraser committed to the hard work to get her back into shape for Tokyo. In the final weeks before leaving for Tokyo, the Australia swim team took off for the northern Australian city of Townsville. The last thing Fraser expected was to fall in love.
Gary Ware was in a group of guys who found the women’s swim team on a welcome break one Saturday night on the town. Despite Ware being a shy guy, Fraser learned he was a plumber and a bookie who made money at the racetracks. Despite being warned off the bookie, Fraser knew Ware was the man. “He was possessive and al little domineering; but that’s what I needed. I wanted somebody to be strong with me.” A few nights before the Australian team was to leave for Tokyo, Ware proposed to Fraser.
Fraser knew this news of their engagement would set off a media storm. She also remembered the trials of her teammate at the Rome Olympics, Lorraine Crapp, who got secretly married just before leaving for Rome, only to have the news break at the Olympics. She was hounded by the press and shunned by her teammates, and ended up doing poorly in the competitions. Fraser needed to avoid that.
And she did. Her mother had died in a car accident with Fraser at the wheel. She had fought through recovery and depression. She hid her engagement from the world. And even so, Fraser went on to take gold in the 100-meter freestyle – the first ever female three-time Olympic champion.